Sense and Sensitivity

Senior black couple dance in their back garden, full length

Have people ever told you that you're just too dang sensitive, that you can't take a joke and you're way too ready to take offense? And did you believe them? Do you have the sneaking suspicion that you have more trouble than most folks in dealing with constructive criticism and well-intentioned friendly banter? Well, there's more to it than that. Everyone is sensitive about something or other; everyone has a trigger that clicks and resonates, bringing feelings of anxiety, shame, anger, embarrassment—or maybe just an overall sense of discomfort. And being sensitive is not entirely a bad thing. Sensitivity isn't a disorder; it simply means that some people just feel things more deeply than others.

The Perks of Being Sensitive

Some very positive traits are associated with sensitivity, such as imagination, highly developed perception and an appreciation of the arts. Highly sensitive people feel, not only their own emotions intensely, but are also adept at reading the feelings of others. They are compassionate. They're also likely to be meticulous and painstaking—even to the point of perfectionism.

It's Not Always All About You

Sensitive, self-conscious folks do have feelings that are easily hurt, and sometimes they have a point. Sometimes, criticism just isn't all that constructive, in intention as well as in effect. Then again, there is such a thing as over-reaction as well. How to tell the difference? Here is where your very sensitivity helps out. You have the chops to tell one from the other by using your emotional smarts to take a good hard look at the critic (him) and the critiqued (you).

When you're hurt by someone's comments, you don't need to confront him immediately. Try to calm down, so go somewhere quiet where you can reflect and go over the exchange with as much detachment as you can muster. Does this person consistently make you feel good or make you feel bad? What buttons is he pushing? Is he aware that he's pushing them? Consider the tone of his words as well as the words themselves. If this person is actually baiting or gas-lighting you, insist to yourself that his opinion should have zero impact on you. Insist until you believe it. You need not ever seek out his approval again.

What you're most sensitive about may well be what is most precious to you and often what is most private. Let's say you use your journal for writing poetry. You hide it from everyone because you're unsure of its value (except to yourself). Maybe someone back in high school made fun of your poems, and you've carried the pain with you ever since. Now, if a friend comes across your journal and lightheartedly brings up your poetic efforts, of course, you're blindsided and upset. After you've given yourself a little time and space to reflect, if you conclude that you might have over-reacted to a well-meaning friend, talk to him. Be honest about your feelings. You don't need to go into great detail. Just say that your poetry is private and important to you, and you're a little sensitive about opening it up to the public. Then take a few weeks to practice reading your poems out loud behind closed doors. Work your way to signing up for an open-mic poetry slam. You'll be amazed at the enthusiastic response. Next time you might even invite your friend.

Inventory Your Sore Spots

For sensitive folks, emotions are close to the surface and hard to control. When confronted with unexpected difficulties or pressure from co-workers, family or peers, it's easy to become overwhelmed and anxious. You might feel as if you want to run away or hide under a rock! After a series of such encounters, depression can become a constant companion. Little mistakes can have a huge impact; insignificant failures can seem devastating. A loss of confidence can lead to over-thinking, delaying important decisions and leaving projects unfinished.

Make use of your sensitivity to recognize and work through your negative emotions. Use calming relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation. Allow yourself to observe your feelings, to examine them deeply. Pursue your fears to their roots and face them. But always remember that reflection is good—self-absorption not so much.

Dance Like There's No One Watching!

As an exercise, throw yourself into an activity that you enjoy and that won't open you up to unwanted comments. It's enough that you enjoy it. Since your feelings run deep, try expressing them through writing, art, music, dance—whatever you're into. Even just sitting down with a good book, mingling with the trials and tribulations of fictional characters, can help redirect hurt feelings into rich and satisfying emotional understanding.

As for critics who are not so well-intentioned, feel empathy for them, but then go on about your life.